Sunday, January 11, 2009

Unsustainable Israel/Palestine

Watching the news clips about the Israeli invasion of Gaza, I couldn't help but think of a moment 27 years ago, when I was working as a volunteer excavator at the archeological dig of Gamla, on the Golan Heights. Gamla sits on a spur of land that juts out of the Heights, overlooking the valley that holds the little Lake of Galilee (grandiosely called a "sea" in the Bible),the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Sheer slopes plunge over a thousand feet into deep ravines on both sides, which means that a single wall across the base of the spur could make the place into a nearly impregnable fortress.

Or so the Jews thought, in 66 A.D. Over 9,000 took shelter there when the Roman legions arrived to crush the First Rebellion. But the refuge became a deathtrap; when the Romans besieged the place, they had only one exit to block. According to the ancient historian Josephus, the Romans sat outside the town for over seven months, starving the residents. When the legions finally breached the wall, they killed about 4,000 Jews. The other 5,000 jumped. It was a massacre ten times the size of the celebrated Jewish suicide stand at Masada.

Our little excavation team included Israelis and Druze, Americans and Germans, a young Jewish lady born in Yemen and another lady from New Zealand. Our director carried a six shot revolver because, he said, by Israeli law, when more than six people gathered, one of them had to be armed. When the Israelis bombed an Iraqi reactor that summer to slow down Saddam's then-all-too-real nuclear effort, we were cut off for three days as Israeli tanks maneuvered to confront Syrian tanks on the heights behind us. But, all told, the Gamla excavation was an ironic little island of peace in the troubled Holy Land: a place where people could ponder and discuss the violent past and the violent present without shooting each other.

The view from Gamla was magnificent. Most of the so-called Holy Land lay stretched out below us. But ours wasn't the only spot with such a view. Across the gulch to the south, we could see a stone farmhouse and an orchard, whose owners had fled or been forced out when the Israelis occupied the Golan in the Seven Days' War of 1967.

One day during one of our lunchtime discussions, I remarked that I could see how the farmers who had lived on that adjacent spur would hate to leave that spot with its incredible view.

"That view was why they had to leave," responded an Israeli co-worker. "A piece of artillery there could shell the entire Jordan Valley."

And there, in a nutshell, is one of the nearly insoluble problems of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The "Holy Land"--Palestine to the Palestinians, Israel to the Israelis--is tiny. The entire land covers only about ten thousand square miles--a little over twice the size of the Island of Hawai'i, with no 13,000-foot mountains in the middle to make it seem larger. When I took a bus from Tel Aviv on the coast to Jerusalem in the interior, it took about 45 minutes. A fortified hilltop with a few big guns, located anywhere along the country's central spine of hills, could easily cut Israel in half. Which is why, I don't doubt, Israel is so unwilling to give up the fortified settlements that stud those hilltops in the West Bank, even if they weren't the site of ancient Hebrew settlements in Biblical times.

But it's even worse for the Palestinians. There's probably no place in Gaza or the West Bank that Israeli guns can't easily shell. Gaza is especially vulnerable. Its total area is only 140 square miles--if it were rectangular, that would be only 10 miles wide by 14 long. And in fact, it's more stretched out and vulnerable than that. At its widest point, along the Egyptian border, it's only seven miles across; for much of its length, it's only three or four miles from the ocean to the interior. You could walk across Gaza in an hour or two, if no one detained you; you could drive a tank across in minutes.

Economically, the situation is even worse. Gaza's 140 square miles are estimated to hold about a million and a half people--one of the highest population densities on earth. There's simply no way that this tiny patch of ground, a little more than half the size of Singapore, could grow enough food to support all those people, or supply the natural resources needed by its factories. With the blockade in effect, its people must be feeling very much the way that the starving Jews of Gamla must have felt as Roman legions tightened their grip--or as the Jews of Europe felt when walls were built around their neighborhoods. It's a bitter irony that Israel has decided that its only solution to the Palestinian problem is to build ghettos.

Israel has claimed continuously that it has a right to protect itself. But it has deprived the Palestinians of that same right, as well as virtually every civil right recognized in the U.S. Constitution, including the right to keep property (as many as half of the people in Gaza are dispossessed refugees, whose families were driven from their homes in other parts of Israel and Palestine), freedom from religious discrimination (Israel is a state specifically created for Jews, even though it does have some Muslim citizens), freedom to elect their own representatives (when Hamas was elected. the Israeli response was a blockade), and, of course, the right to bear arms. But most importantly, Israel has denied Palestinians the very security that it claims for itself: not just security from being bombed or shot at, but economic security. Deprived of most of their land and cut off from natural resources, Palestinians have little to sell except their labor--and with borders closed and walls going up, they cannot even get jobs to feed their families.

I hate to say it, but if I were a Palestinian, I would probably hate Israel, too. Since I was born into a Christian milieu and embrace a life of personal nonviolence, I can't say that the Palestinians are justified in launching unguided rockets that land in civilian populations. But I can understand that reaction.

The simple fact is that neither Palestine nor Israel are sustainable states. Israel has always existed with the help of massive aid from the U.S. and private donations from world Jewry. The Palestinian state, as currently envisioned, is an economic basket case, with little to support it except olive groves and human labor. The only inland water resource of any size is the Jordan River watershed, on which both states must depend. Israel/Palestine is just too small and resource-poor to support two independent economies, much less two independent and fully sovereign states. It may not even be big enough to support one state. And the land's size and geography make it almost impossible for two states to be tactically secure from each other.

In short, the only hope that I can see that Israel and Palestine have of surviving is not as two independent states, but two interdependent ones, sharing resources and treating each other with enough respect that they don't have to worry about each other's weapons.

Given the mutual animosity that has built up over the past 50 years, I doubt if such a practical acknowledgment of interdependence is possible--especially if we pin our hopes of that acknowledgment on two populations in which significant numbers of people on both sides claim that God has given them the right to all of this land. Maybe the recognition of interdependence needs to start away from the battlegrounds, with the people who are controlling the purse strings to the aid on which each side is dependent. Maybe we could start by nudging the two sides into negotiations, not on the political control of Jerusalem, but on things like trade agreements and water rights.

But a sea change of attitude has to start somewhere, or that little country's (those little countries') animosities could very well pull us all into Armageddon eventually.


Tiffany Edwards Hunt said...

Thank you for this, Alan. Hope to see you at the press club annual merging on Jan 23rd...

Anonymous said...

Another excellent blog report Alan, you should be on the new Obama negotiating team. I have read a lot of articles about this region and yours' brings it all into focus for those of us trying to understand how this ugly situation can be resolved. Regards, Shannon Taylor

Anonymous said...

Aloha Alan,
Your heart-felt writing and carefully chosen words give clarity to a situation I have never understood until reading your story.
Thank you!
Barbara Moore